Keith Emerson

Interview with Keith Emerson


DPRP’s John Wenlock-Smith

Progressive Rock began somewhere and at some point, and whilst that’s a discussion that could run and run DPRP’s John Wenlock-Smith caught up with Keith Emerson, a man who needs little introduction having made his name in the 1960’s with The Nice and thereafter with the legendary Emerson Lake and Palmer.  In this interview Keith talks about the inspiration and creation of his latest album Three Fates and also has a few words to say about his old friend Rick Wakeman and about possible future plans and finally reveals why Brain Salad Surgery isn’t on the album of the same name…


JWS: Firstly thank you for agreeing to talk with us. I’ve had the new CD Three Fates for a few days and I gather it’s a project that’s been in your mind for a few years to undertake

KE: Well it all started six years ago when I was asked to go to Beijing and oversee a performance of my Piano Concerto which was being put in alongside a Chinese composer who had written a another piano concerto called The Yellow River. Basically the concert was to bring awareness to the Chinese about  the amount of pollution that was going up into the air, I looked at the arrangements, as they wanted to use the last movement of my concerto, mainly to symbolize this pollution, and I thought OK that’s fair enough.  I got flown to Beijing and actually I played the encore with the orchestra, then at the end of the concert I sat with the conductor Terje Mikkelson and he said this is a very good idea, why don’t you consider doing this with some of the compositions that you made for ELP.
I said well I’d have to change it around a little bit, what pieces are you looking at and he said conceptual themes like The Endless Enigma, and I said well we could turn that into The Endless Enigma Suite, and he said Tarkus and I said well that’s going to be very hard to play with an orchestra but we could play with it and turn it into Tarkus Concert ante so as not to confuse with the ELP version,  so the whole idea was born six years ago, but of course I had experiences of working with mixed media including an orchestra right from the 1960’s and even bagpipes with live shows and on recordings, I’m not saying I’m the only one, the late Jon Lord was and of course Rick Wakeman

JWS: You’ve told me about the ELP tracks that you have covered, but were there any others that you did consider and didn’t use for whatever reason

KE: I think the ones that I chose, Endless Enigma, Abbadons Bolero, Tarkus, Fanfare, It was Terje Mikkelson’s idea to play the original Aaron Copeland’s shortened Fanfare, and then to play the version that I arranged for ELP in 1977

JWS: I noticed the difference between parts one and two and I gathered you’d done something like that

KE: There isn’t a fugue in there and of course all the way through the album, there are no vocals you know having done quite a few duo concerts in America (with Greg Lake) you break a song down into its simplicity, people have a completely different understanding of a piece and have really quite enjoyed it

JWS: I have to say I have enjoyed listening to it, I’ve been a long term ELP fan for about 35 years so I’ve grown up with those songs and it is good to hear them in a different format and the fact that you’ve retained much of the original intent and yet brought new and fresh to them it’s really good to listen to and it’s something you can revisit time and time again and get something new out of I hope

KE: Well I collaborated with very very good arrangers and wrote my own arrangement, but no I’m very proud of it, it’s just these days are, yes of course they play Beethoven’s Fifth so many times that they can do it without watching the conductor, these days orchestras have so many talented players fresh out of Julliard that one minute play Jazz then at the weekend go off and play in a rock group and then can play Wagner’s ring or something.  Having traveled pretty much all over the world it’s just recently there are just so many talented musicians around and they are starved of new works  and I couldn’t believe the excitement on the orchestra’s face when they realised OK this is different, let’s give it a go.  On the second day, we recorded it in Munich at their radio orchestra and the Munich symphony and some of the Bavarian Symphony as well , it was a big orchestra, If you see the album artwork you can get an idea it’s a pretty serious concert hall. I did this radio broadcast on the second day and they asked me what I was doing and I said vie come back to orchestrating and really focusing my attention on becoming a composer, I’m not ruling out Live playing except that I’d like to spend a little bit more time on old composing and do some live performances if they fit OK.

JWS: That was another question, is there any chance of any of this being done in a live context somewhere at some stage

KE: Yes I think it Terje Mikkelson’s idea to let the album come out, in England.  Its around about the 19th November , I thought it was going to be the 29th October, so get the album out and use it as bait for various orchestra’s in certain cities, one concept was to, say for instance if we played Cleveland (Ohio) spend a week rehearsing the orchestra, meanwhile another orchestra for a concert that’s booked for about two weeks after is being prepared for say in Chicago but in the meantime and in order to pay expenses I tour between Cleveland and Chicago with just the breakdown of the band, not ELP, my band , the Keith Emerson Band

JWS: So that’s Marc Bonilla and the other guys?

KE: Yes Marc Bonilla, Troy on Drums Trevor on Bass

JWS: That would work, that sounds a promising concept

KE: Yes, yeah at least you’re paying the rent so to speak to finance the next big one with the orchestra

JWS: An ideal thing for that would be to take it to the Proms in London?

KE: I’d like to.  The thing is we are a little bit late for this year, basically the proms are lined up   (October) and we’d have to submit it now if we were going to do it next year

JWS: We need to get the BBC a bit excited then

KE: They need to hear the album

JWS: Radio 3, Classic FM

KE: Well I’ve been trying to get an interview, to get on the show particularly with John Suchet,  I think we could have a very good conversation, the quality of the music on this albums lends itself very much to classic FM’s format

JWS: Yes I think a lot of people would be surprised both within the Classical market and the crossover market and also a lot of Rock fans are going to enjoy it

KE: I can’t quite see why there is the stall in here as classic FM play a lot of Hans Zimmer’s Pirates of the Caribbean, it’s very contemporary its very right now of course,  They play Beethoven and all the rest I just think some of this album would go across very well there

JWS: I think it would. I almost don’t like the word crossover because it cheapens everything but I think this has potential to people who are open minded in either genre would latch onto it and find something to enjoy in there because it’s a well-crafted album KeithI also like that there is a lot of your piano playing in there as well and I always enjoy hearing you play the piano

KE: Thank you

JWS: Trilogy. I’ve always loved Trilogy as there is a great piano melody and motif before the Moog comes in and other stuff Barrelhouse Piano Blues, Nutrocker, you’re versatile on the piano and I think a lot of people would probably, if they heard this somewhere would latch onto it  which brings me to another question, You mentioned Jon Lord earlier and we’re all saddened by his passing but I know that you and Rick Wakeman are good friends and I know you banter together and there was a lot of competition in the 70’s as to who was the best keyboard player and you’d sit together and laugh about it

KE: That was the tabloids

JWS: What’s the chance of you and Rick doing something together?

KE: (Laughs)

JWS: For a lot of progressive rock fans that would be almost musical heaven I think

KE: We have actually decided this, we’re talking about it, the last request from Rick I was in California and he was doing a Princes Trust  at the Albert Hall, a charity event of course I really couldn’t afford to get back to England I’d just got back to California and a lot of finances I had were sunk into the new music , financially I wasn’t really equipped , I’d love to have done it of course, I’m not a millionaire by any stroke of the word nowhere near it

JWS: People would have thought so but obviously times move on don’t they let’s be honest times move on

KE: It is a struggle, really is a struggle we’re looking in all directions, this could possibly be one. I mean there’s certainly a lot of opportunity in the music on this album to really take off , I’m really quite pleased because there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Japan have just gone completely crazy over Tarkus, they used Tarkus  the first bit of it to advertise a car – the Subaru car  and then it got used in this epic Japanese historical drama samurai drama and I think they run that till the end of this year. Meanwhile there is a conductor in Japan who has been playing it with the Tokyo philharmonic and there’s even been a woodwind version of it. In Japan it’s just gone nuts;  So a piece that I wrote which was difficult enough for ELP to play is now been played by very good orchestras

JWS: The music of ELP always had an orchestral, classical feel to it anyway, as you were fascinated by that Carl was fascinated by that and Greg went along with all that so it makes sense that the music you have had a much wider scope than the music being churned out by other bands in the 70’s

KE: As I was saying earlier a lot of the members of these orchestras are what 25 or 26 their fathers probably listened to ELP this is great for them just the excitement of meeting some of the members of the Munich Radio Orchestra there’s a mixture of the Munich Symphony and the Bavarian Symphony that was it, they are a hell of a great orchestra but all of them are within the ages 25 to early 30’s

JWS: Yes did a tour with an orchestra a few yes back, the yes symphonic tour and they said it brought a whole freshness to the material giving it and orchestral lift, depth and brought out some of the subtleties in the music that had perhaps been overlooked before

KE: Wells that’s right, well you get a chance when you’re sitting down with the arrangements to say well I know when I wrote this back in 1971 or whenever, well I had intended for this to happen but somehow it didn’t quite come across, well maybe I can develop that point a little bit more heres you get a second chance at it. I don’t put myself on the same lines as Stravinsky but I think he did about 20 orchestrations of the Rites of Spring before he was satisfied

JWS: So he kept revisiting and re honed then

KE: That’s what I’ve had, an opportunity to do here and that’s why to avoid confusion the Endless Enigma is called the Endless Enigma Suite, Tarkus is Tarkus Concert Ante Abbaddons Bolero is as is

JWS: So you take the structures as they were and just tinkered as you needed to get them to the way you think they ought to be or to how you envisioned them to be, I mean Tarkus Concert Ante is a really strong track and even without the vocals it does add something completely different to the piece and gives it a whole different life as it were.  The one thing I would have liked to have seen is a version of Jerusalem as I’ve always enjoyed the ELP version of that

KE: Well that’s definitely a consideration, it really is

JWS: Do you think there could be a volume 2 Keith, does it depend on the success of this one

KE: Oh absolutely, I’ve already started work on a volume 2

JWS: Well my tip would be to add Jerusalem

KE: I’ll put it down (laughs)

JWS: If you can do Trilogy I’d be the happiest man on planet earth I think, Trilogy is one of my favourite ELP tracks, I have a question from my brother who is also a big ELP Fan and he asked why Brain Salad Surgery was never on the album of the same name

KE: (Laughs) Oh the extra track, well if you check out the new releases on the Sony label, ELP’s back catalogue went to Sony, and they’ve now come up with a bunch of new releases, some in 5.1 surround sound and I think Brain Salad Surgery is somewhere amongst those. The reason we couldn’t do it back then was we only had vinyl and if you wanted a good bass quality then you didn’t want to more than 26 minutes per side and we just didn’t have the room.  Originally we were doing interviews with NME and they said have you got any spare tracks from that session and we had Brain Salad Surgery, so they put it out and put it on a floppy a flexi disc

JWS: I’ve got that

KE: The flexi? (Laughs) and then they gave it away as a freebie

JWS: Have you heard the reissues?

KE: No I’ve been so busy travelling around I haven’t yet as yet

JWS: Have Carl or Greg heard these new versions yet

KE: No they haven’t yet no, during the time I was doing the duo tour with Greg (Lake) in America he heard what I done with the Japanese orchestra, Yoshimatsu  his name was,  the conductor and that’s available on youtube.  Greg was impressed with it, he liked it, at the moment I’ve only got about 3 copies myself so no, Greg’s a busy man and Carl has his own thing going now and I don’t think they are that interested really, it’s like OK he’s done it again

JWS: Yes I guess that’s the case with a lot of people, this music is well known and you’ve got to get across what’s new about it barrier I suppose

KE: Well of course this is all new, new arrangements, new orchestration have been augmented, its almost become another tune and there are of course brand new compositions as well and the reception has been good thus far and it’s given me a lot of confidence to want to do another album using the same idea, whether that’s just me or whether Marc (Bonilla) is involved, I’d like him to be. We just have to look at the budget see if it’s feasible, can we afford to do this?

JWS: I understand the music world has changed so much in the past ten years, album sales are down across the board and a lot of bands are making their money touring and merchandise and the like and it almost calls for a different business model really forgetting your music to the people

KE: The thing these days is to make it profitable for a band to actually go out there, firstly they’re not going to make any money off the albums unless they actually sell them at the meet and greets and the T shirts  merchandise, if they can cash in on that, these things make up some of the money to get through the whole tour and to be able to afford the hotels , the petrol that’s needed to ship certain pieces of equipment by air, it’s a very very expensive process and it’s no wonder that people are having to resort back to, musicians just playing acoustically

JWS: Easier and cheaper to do

KE: Much cheaper, it’s a hell of a shame because the audience is out there., If I walked out onto a stage and there’s no big Moog Modular Synthesizer or a Hammond organ out there people are going to be slightly upset, if I was to just sit, and I know some actually do this, they go on stage with a small Casio tone but they actually have a laptop withal the sounds on and use that, now what the hell use is that?

JWS: People want the big production I suppose

KE: It’s just really, forget it, I’d never resort to that, I could use a piano a really good piano but I really want to bring back the big sound and the only way to do it at the moment is through the use of an orchestra

JWS: So are you hearing new music that’s about that you think is progressive in the true sense of the word what’s your view on the revival or re-emergence, for want of a better word, of Progressive music

KE: I think, I realise the difference between when I brought a Beatles records in 1963  everybody was talking about George Harrison’s guitar solo, ecstatic, the arrangements I overhear the young generation discussing certain things and it’s like It’s got a good beat innit, we used to divulge, almost dissect the new releases, that’s a great guitar solo there or the drumming is good or that Paul McCartney’s a left handed bass player you know, you’d get all this stuff you don’t get that these days that sort of excitement, there are a lot of good bands around, have you heard of a band called Fun, they were on some chat show late at night I really enjoyed them

JWS: It’s been a pleasure talking to you Keith thanks for talking to us, I wish you all the very best for the album

KE: Thank you it’s been good talking to you as well